Page 1


Architectural History & Urbanism

Ghardaïa pearl of the desert Prestigious without intention of prestige - André Ravéreau

OUKILI Riane w1672232

Market place and view of GhardaĂŻa

table Abstract




I.Ghardaia A.Localisation B.Context


II. Between Tradition and Modernity A.Habitat


B.Urban Planning


C.Urban Management









In the south of Algeria, in an oasis of the Sahara desert, nestle the city of GhardaĂŻa. The Hybadites found refuge in this desert, once fleeing the Arab invaders. They developed a simple architecture, functional, beautiful, all in curves. The town consists of stratified masses of houses on rocky peaks, dominated by a mosque and minaret, elevated on the skyline like a divine finger. This architecture without architects inspires a philosophy of the city that adapts intelligently to its arid climate: starting from the basic needs of man, studying local materials, climate, build without ornaments, in the strictest logic. Translated through the appropriate spatial organisation and constructive processes and materials, all appropriate and integrated with the site and the environment. When the greatest French architects discover this oasis of beauty, it was a revelation. Many common points can be discerned between the tendencies of contemporary architecture and this simple, rational architecture which expresses a unified vision of community. My modest contribution is about my reflection on the vernacular urbanism of Ghardaia and its oasis created as an ecosystem. I want to explore how the city and its urban planning maintained over centuries its own unified system of traditions and social and cultural organisations. This wellthought architecture and clever conception of the City has influenced numerous and known architects and urban planners. I believe that this secular architecture can bring contemporary architecture to new practices and a philosophy of the City. In order for this heritage to continue, the city of Ghardaia must face many social, environmental and cultural challenges. Keywords : Ghardaia, Oasis, Sahara, Climate, Vernacular Urbanism, Social and cultural organisation, philosophy, Heritage, Challenges

1) Architecure without Architects - Lessons from Empirical Tradition


Ghardaia's urban model is not fortuitous. It draws its sources from the Ibadism, one of the oldest Islamic schools. Created in the 10th century by the Ibadites around four others ksour, or fortified villages, seems to have remained intact. Simple, functional and perfectly adapted to the environment, the architecture of the M’Zab was designed for community life, while respecting family structures. It is a source of inspiration for today's urban planners. The city of Ghardaia fit perfectly into this logic. Their foundation at the beginning of the 11th century is the result of a voluntary act of human settlement, following the influx of Ibadi populations, who came to seek peace and security in a hostile and arid environment. But we had to succeed in the challenge of making such an environment liveable, thanks to options for the development and management of space, society and water. It provides us one of the most precious lessons in the history of human civilisation. The M'Zab valley, the cradle of a millennial Ksourian civilisation, is today a benchmark in perfect harmony between social organisation, the urbanisation system, architectural typology, control of water resources and ecological balance. The valley is commonly known as the “Pentapole�. In addition to the ksours, the M'zab valley also brings together an exceptional concentration of buildings and buildings of historic value.The urbanisation of Saharan spaces is a paradox. These are naturally fragile and hostile environments, which owe their humanisation and their urbanisation, essentially to populations seeking peace and security, in the conditions of hostility and aridity, sheltered from the glances that the conditions of splendour generally provoke. These men took up the challenges of a hostile nature and to mobilise all the resources, to succeed in the development of the oases, the installation of a hydraulic infrastructure and a rare water management system. Man succeeds thanks to his genius and his faith, to ensure a balance between nature and culture and to live in harmony with his environment as hostile as it is.


I.Ghardaia A. Localisation Ghardaia is located 600km south of Algiers (gateway to the desert) and is the largest city in the Pentapolis. The geomorphological unit in which this city is inscribed is a rocky plateau it is a Cretaceous plateau (sea rock) formed by hard limestones and which make the landscape a vast stony area where a bare rock is exposed (appear) brown and blackish in colour. (1)

The Mozabite (indigenous) society is a community characterised by sociological, religious, economic, cultural and linguistic particularities. “After their installation in the M'zab region, their first concern was to find a source of water by all possible means, since nowhere did it arise naturally, unlike some dayas of the Sahara (basins, source of water with natural vegetation) where the main human settlements have settled."(3)

B. Context Populations finding in Ibadism (mainstream of rigorous Islamic thought) an egalitarian ideal sought, fleeing the tyranny of intolerance and injustice, and in search of peace, end up finding refuge in the desert, to found there a millennial civilisation which knew how to challenge all the tests of time and space. (2) Ibadism is characterised by its vision of the practice of good as a fundamental religious principle, its promotion of equality between all and its community management of the affairs of the city.

Fig. 2. map of the M'zab

1 : page 107, A city fills its valley: GhardaĂŻa by Marc Cote 2 : page 4, The M'zab: Views of town planning and sociology by Brahim Benyoucef 3 : OPVM, Le M'zab, History of the flood water management and distribution system.


II. Between Tradition and Modernity A. Habitat

1 : The M'zab: Views of town planning and sociology by Brahim Benyoucef

Mozabite architecture is subject to real rules, governed by laws and standards. It is there to transmit a faithful image of the social, cultural and natural order. The volumes and heights are carefully defined, to ensure security and preserve the privacy of the home and, to provide some thermal comfort. The materials are extracted from the soil itself, which allows better adaptability: stone, sand, plaster and palm wood. (1) Appropriate use favorable to ambient temperatures inside houses. The openings are reduced to the maximum to avoid the scorching heat of the sun. As for the essential lighting and ventilation, it is provided by a large hole in the ceiling of the central room.


On the urban level, the sun and privacy are inalienable rights. It is forbidden to raise your wall to the point of shading your neighbour and it is inadmissible to violate your privacy. A rule which dates from 1743 and which has been scrupulously respected ever since. As for aesthetics, it is forbidden to bring an element of differentiation between the houses it makes difficult to distinguish the houses of the rich from those of the poor. The surface area of ​a Mozabite house does not exceed 100 m2. The door (el-atba) is always raised to a height of 10 cm to prevent the soil from getting inside and the cold air from escaping during the summer. Laundry water must not flow from the terrace to the neighbour's wall and a window cannot be opened regardless of its surface before the neighbour allows it and it is up to him to indicate the place of the opening.

Model that I made only by sand and water to show the materiality of the city

I wanted to show through this model how a millennial urban civilisation could build as absolute units juxtaposed on the hill one above the other without any vis-à -vis, panoramic from the terrace but without seeing the terrace of the neighbour below, introverted houses with real gardens in patios �.

Fig. 3. : house, at the gates of Ghardaïa, 1975-1976. - Photo credit: Ravéreau André and de sociologie

Fig. 4. : Top floor of a typical house


Fig. 5. : typical house drawn by Andre Ravereau



B. Urban Planning

Fig. 6. : map of Ghardaia

In a Mozabite city, the first building to be built is the mosque. Around it, the houses are grafted in concentric circles to the ramparts of the city. As in any oasis model, the Mozabite model is based on three elements: water, the palm grove, the ksar (fortified city which include a mosque, Housing, Market place, Cemeteries), gathered in one place. The oasis responds to the organisation of local society, activities and space. The ksar and the palm grove are linked by an access path which extends from the beginning of the ksar to the end of the palm grove. It has a judicious system of sharing water from wells and seguias (water structures) which bring water from one point (the basin) to another (the date palm); it is based on the principle of total and optimal exploitation of rainwater and groundwater and on the equal sharing of water within the palm grove. The alleys are two meters wide, barely enough to let two mules. This constitution makes it possible to avoid the interference of sand during storms and makes the places cooler in times of great heat. At the time of their construction, it was a question of making it difficult for enemy cavalrymen to infiltrate into the city, while allowing residents to move from one terrace to another in complete safety. Other streets have been designed wider to house commercial activities such as the souks (market).

1 : The M'zab: Views of town planning and sociology by Brahim Benyoucef

The vernacular town planning of the M’zab valley has the particularity of integrating the different functions of each building present within a coherent framework while respecting the social whole. The ksour adapts not only to the arid climate, to the location of the site but also to the social conditions and beliefs of the inhabitants. It is essential to combine built spaces with cultural spaces. Nature and culture come together to form a territorial unity (1). This double occupation: built space / plant space, would impose itself as a fundamental rule in the organisation of space. In such an arid site, any possibility of human life is conditioned by subtle methods, bypassing the hostility of nature. The founders had first of all to delimit and preserve the spaces favorable to the vegetation: those dug at the bottom of the "alley and furrowed by the courses of oueds (streams); while the rocky mounds were designated to accommodate the built spaces of The city At the foot of the rocky mound, the built city must stop, to give way to the palm grove.Culture and nature, occupy the territory of the city harmoniously, rationally and fairly. Between the built city and the plant city, the dead city is interposed, as a growth limit, to slow down the advance of the built city and prevent it from overflowing beyond its limits.



Fig. 7. : top view of Ghardaia

Fig. 8. : example of alleys

Town of Ghardaia.


C. Palm Groves Residential palm groves Productive palm groves

Palm groves are created near the city. It is separated from the city by a dead space which acts as a corridor from the ksar to the palm grove. The palm grove was designed as a “pantry� space and holiday resort for residents of the ksar during hot periods. The palm grove is divided into two parts: a productive part and a residential part. (1) The productive part is a vegetated space (palm trees, fruit trees, wheat, etc). Occupying approximately half of the palm grove, it is the part most exposed to urbanisation due to its proximity with the Ksar. As for the occasional residential part (El Ghaba), it lies beyond the producing palm grove and is characterised by the presence of summer residences surrounded by gardens. Those houses are built with local materials such as stone which keeps the freshness inside the house. In addition, the shade of palm trees and trees softens the climate in summer.

Ksar of Ghardaia

Fig. 9. : map of th e palm groves of Ghardaia

To accompany their temporary installations in the palm grove, the Mozabites built a set of socio-cultural facilities, such as mosques, holiday houses (hajba). These facilities make it possible to transpose social and cultural life temporally from the ksar to the palm grove, forming a socio-spatial continuity. Thus, the local society can practice its worship and reproduce its cultural traditions in this space during the hot period. There are numerous hydraulic structures, absorption dams, underground galleries, wells, artificial streams. The palm grove is very important for the ecological balance. The palm grove, like the ksar is an integral part of the city of Ghardaia.

1 :Urbanization of the M'zab Valley and the urban sprawl of the palm grove of GhardaĂŻa (Algeria): a threatened oasis heritage

Fig. 10. : house based in the palm groves


D. Urban management The urban management of Ghardaia is governed by strict laws and rules, controlled, regulated and updated by an assembly of elders. This assembly - like the other socio-political institutions which govern the laws of governance and management of the city - this assembly ensures compliance with the laws and urban planning rules of the ksar and the palm grove (irrigation land, equitable distribution of water) it is also responsible for ensuring technical monitoring and urban planning control. Thus, the socio-political-cultural balance is preserved.

Fig. 11. : chapel of Ronchamp by Le Corbusier

Fig. 12. : mosque Sidi Brahim

E. Influence This urbanism has influenced many modern artists and architects: Fathy, Bofill, Raverau, Le Corbusier and Wright. The story of Le Corbusier is quite interesting, he discovered the M'zab during a trip in Algeria. He thought that the cities were a dry crust of beaten soil burnt by the sun. He flies over the city of Ghardaia and found that a miracle of sagacity, learned and beneficent order. The memory of Mozabite architecture would be found in his works, in particular in the chapel of Ronchamp.

III.Challenges The first signs of a change in the oasis habitat pattern date from the colonial period. The settling of nomads roaming the region, the installation of military equipment and the French administration marked the start of a new era and the break with the traditional local housing model. New constructions are grafted on from the ramparts of the Ksar of GhardaĂŻa. For several decades, the region of GhardaĂŻa, particularly the M'zab valley, has suffered the consequences of rapid and sometimes anarchic urbanisation due to new technologies, demography, climate change, and the exodus of population from other cities. from the south and from the north. To the detriment of its architectural heritage. The latter thus entered a cycle of degradation of its physical space and its architectural style where a process of abandonment of local and traditional building materials in favour of cement and concrete has disfigured the sites of the region.


Crops under palm trees are increasingly abandoned in favor of concrete. The case of Ksar Melika testifies to this: the palm grove has completely disappeared. What is more, in some cases the palm groves have become green spaces to accompany recent housing and no longer a source of agricultural production or a summer refuge. The process of urbanisation of the palm grove first caused changes in the spatial structure that led to the dissociation of ksar from its palm grove. This action exposes the ecosystem built to multiple risks: contamination and rising water levels, disappearance o the green heritage, disappearance of the built heritage. Through urbanisation, the inhabitants of GhardaĂŻa ksar have sacrificed the palm grove to preserve social cohesion; they refuse the collective housing programs that the State offers them, because they do not correspond to their housing model and their way of life. There is a risk of socio-cultural imbalance, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts, degradation of the ecosystem and of the urban ensemble, loss of identity and heritage. Fig. 13. : map of the evolution of the urbanisation of Ghardaia

first kernel 1st expansion 2nd expansion 3rd expansion




Conclusion The vernacular town planning of the M’zab valley has the particularity of integrating the different functions of each building present within a coherent framework while respecting the social whole. The ksour (cities) adapt not only to the arid climate, to the location of the site with in particular a mosque present in the heart of the highest point of the place but also to the social conditions and beliefs of the inhabitants. In order for this heritage to last, the local authorities of the country must nevertheless take decisions so that a well thought-out urban policy can be implemented quickly in order to find adequate solutions to the problems encountered due to demography, climate change, industrialisation and advent of new technologies. It is only at this price that the socio-cultural balance the ecosystem, and social cohesion can last and that this marvelous heritage can be preserved.

words count : 2538

Bibliography 1.Le M'zab: Regards d'urbanisme et de sociologie by Brahim Benyoucef 2. Atelier du desert by Philippe Potie 3. Le M'Zab, une leçon d'architecture by André Ravéreau and Hassan Fathy 4. The effects of green spaces (Palme trees) on the microclimate in arides zones, case study: Ghardaia , Algeria by Hamida Bencheikha and Ameur Rchid 5. Precaution as a principle of sustainable development. Case of Ghardaia town by Belarbi Lakhdar

Illustration credits

17 Fig.1.\\













References Websites la_vallee_du_m_zab_en_algerie.htm = urbanisation pid=S2175-33692019000100403&script=sci_arttext S0360132303000659

Profile for oukili2000

Ghardaia pearl of the desert  

Essay on Vernacular Architecture, case study : the City of Ghardaia. Riane Tarik Oukili

Ghardaia pearl of the desert  

Essay on Vernacular Architecture, case study : the City of Ghardaia. Riane Tarik Oukili